Volume II of Peter Ackroyd’s ambitious historical project charting the history of England from its earliest days to the present focuses on the reign of Henry VIII, his son and two daughters.
While Henry VIII was not the first Tudor,(Henry VII was technically the first king from this welsh household), no other ruler besides perhaps his daughter Elizabeth exemplified the manic energy of their clan.
Ackroyd is not the first historian to chart English history through the rise of either the English church or the relatively brief dynastic reign of the Tudor clan. What makes Ackroyd so successful is the delight he seems to take in telling this story.
While this is not a critical examination of the Tudors (there are already enough of those), it is not a whitewash of a dynasty either. Ackroyd is perfectly keen to note Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, Edwards gullibility, Mary’s messianic drive, and Henry’s general disregard for decency. but while he shows us the flaws that make these rulers, “all too human”, he is also emphatic that the sometimes murky orders Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth especially gave helped to slowly etch away at what had been the Catholic church in England and ended up becoming a distinctly English invention: the Anglican Church (Church of England). Put another way, ecclesiastical matters went from being dealt as the Church IN England to the Church OF England.
Describing the development of the Anglican Church, starting as it does in fits and spurts, has been a difficult endeavor for historians and faithful alike. surprisingly, Ackroyd is able to describe the whole evolution of the English Reformation from the dissolution of the monasteries to the settlement under Elizabeth with surprising ease. His transitions from reign to reign are assisted by the presence of a colourful supporting cast from Sir Thomas More to Archbishop Cranmer to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. The rise and fall of these eclectic persons add wonderful context to the events that surround the monarch and provide anecdotal support to Ackroyd’s interpretation of events.
Most refreshing in Ackroyd’s volume is the distinct absence of sentiment or interest regarding the love affairs of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII was a notorious philanderer with an obsession concerning male progeny that borders on compulsion. Additionally, Elizabeth’s oft written on-off affair with Robert Dudley does not feature as prominently a narrative device. Instead, Ackroyd spends a great deal of time on the administrative costs of war, poverty, and reformation/counter-reform.
None of which is to say that Ackroyd’s story is devoid of rhetorical flourishes. Instead, he brings the reader’s focus back to the ground amid the dirty streets of London or the bloody marshes battlefields in Calais. In both respects Ackroyd’s talent as a storyteller is on display. abjuring sensationalist stories, Ackroyd spends time to weave complex narrative into a digestible, if long, tapestry.
Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by Peter Ackroyd. St. Martin’s Griffin 2014. 528 pages. Purchased Copy